Caught in the crossfire

QUANG X. PHAM, a former Marine pilot, is a Southern California businessman and the author of "A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey."

PRESIDENT BUSH must order the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon to evacuate American personnel immediately. They are all potential hostages or casualties caught in a crossfire.

Picture the scene in Saigon in April 1975 -- a helicopter sits atop a building, and a long line of people waits to board. For the 25,000 Americans now in Lebanon, that terrifying image could be reality within days.

Every once in a while something triggers that haunting picture in my mind. My family was fortunate to have gotten out earlier. I was 10 when U.S. forces evacuated us from Saigon before it was overrun by the North Vietnamese army. We heeded the early warnings. The president of South Vietnam had already resigned, and the panic in Saigon was palpable. A million refugees had fled toward the capital, and the fighting was then less than 15 miles away. We could hear the artillery shells exploding in the distance. Looking out the dirty window of the C-130 aircraft that night, I saw nothing but a faint orange glow bruising the dark sky.

The majority of the 125,000 refugees who escaped fled in boats or planes. The people who waited until the last day had to scramble to board those departing U.S. helicopters, with priority given to procrastinating Americans who had had ample time to leave earlier.

The United States has successfully evacuated Americans overseas -- from Grenada, Albania, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia and other places. But none of the contingents was the size of the one in Lebanon, and the State Department has estimated that only 15% may opt to be evacuated. Israeli aerial and artillery strikes have made land routes, the Beirut airport and the seaport less viable escape options. Add thousands of other foreign nationals attempting to leave and we have a recipe for hysteria.

Back in 1975, it didn't have to be so frantic. The day before Saigon fell, Armed Forces Radio broadcast a bizarre message: "It's 105 degrees, and the temperature is rising." The station then played Bing Crosby's version of "White Christmas" -- a prearranged code -- to warn the remaining Americans to head to the U.S. Embassy for the final evacuation. The evacuation was not planned for all of us, but somehow, many Vietnamese got the word as well.

Operation Frequent Wind became the largest helicopter evacuation on record. About 1,400 Americans were rescued along with about 5,500 Vietnamese and citizens of other nations. The week before, thousands had been taken to refugee camps on Guam and Wake Island. Artillery shelling of the runways near Saigon ended that option.

At the end, the coordination between Washington and the U.S. ambassador in Saigon was at its worst. The ambassador had personal ties to Vietnam, having lost a son in the war. He still had hopes for the Saigon government and did not want to abandon the Vietnamese on the embassy grounds. He remained until given a direct order to leave from President Ford, via Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The situation is deteriorating quickly in Lebanon. For the Americans who decide to linger there, the message should be clear: Get out now or you will be on your own.

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